Bearer of Bad News
Joe Anderson/The Orchard
As people were exiting the cinema after the London Film Festival showing, the chatter all seemed to agree that Christine Chubbuck had a mental illness of some kind. That without that mental illness she would not have done what she did. But we had just spent two hours watching a film in which the chain came together, link by link, that made her decision a small step – not a giant, unexplainable leap. Do we have to hide behind mental illness because this story from 1974 feels very close now? Or is the movie by Antonio Campos so bad that it’s easy to miss the point?
It’s quite good, actually: not least in the production design by Steve Kuzio in which the color yellow and lamps and doorways are used as recurring motifs. Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a field reporter at a Sarasota, Fla., television station. She lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), in a beach house on stilts but her life otherwise revolves around her co-workers at the station: producer Jean (Maria Dizzia, from “Orange Is the New Black”), handsome talking-head George (Michael C. Hall, Dexter himself), and weatherman Steve (Timothy Simons, from “Veep”). She wants better stories, but also to focus on the issues that impact on people’s lives such as zoning regulations, which are hardly sexy. Station manager Mike (Tracy Letts, the playwright) is supportive, but he also has a financial bottom line to think of. The news needs to be exciting, dramatic. They need ratings to attract advertisers. But that’s not the kind of journalism Christine thinks is important.
One of the final sequences, where Christine doorsteps the station owner (John Cullum, a.k.a. Holling Vincoeur from “Northern Exposure”) to beg for an opportunity at another station in a larger market, quietly pulls all the pieces together. There is no bra-burning feminism in the movie, but Christine is not the kind of woman that a man wants to help. She is too physically awkward, too confident of her intelligence and unable to interpret the rules of social interaction in a world where the word “quota” could still be freely applied in the workplace. Christine is very good at her job; she is smart and funny and caring. She even puts on puppet shows at the local children’s home. But none of it is enough. Ms. Hall does a very good job of playing a woman who is just a little irritating and a little off, in spite of herself. But the irritation is because she’s constantly looking for the next right thing that will get her what she wants. She’s in physical pain, but she doesn’t drink or take drugs. She is self-aware enough to understand her relationship with her mother (and their house, positively covered with macramé wall hangings) is not as healthy as they both pretend it is. She buys a police scanner, both for the company and for work. And she always, always puts a good face on her feelings. Every time someone asks her how she is, even if she has been grimacing in pain just seconds before, she smiles and says she is fine.
The script by Craig Shilowich (previously a producer) goes a little far with the foreshadowing, but otherwise the plot doesn’t feel forced. Not everything in Christine’s life is bad; and it sees that clearly, even when she can’t. The sense of standing in a maze, with every exit being closed off, permeates the film. By the end, you might not want to understand why Christine did what she did. But the movie makes it perfectly clear why she felt like she had to.